Our new PM has had many warm words to say about rural Britain after Brexit, but now is the time for him to make good on his promises, says CLA president Tim Breitmeyer.
Our new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly described rural businesses as one of the great success stories of the UK economy.
Of course, he is right. There are 600,000 rural businesses employing 3.4 million people, adding £250bn to the economy of England and Wales alone.
The importance of the countryside to the national economy, never mind our way of life, cannot be overstated.
Now Mr Johnson must go beyond merely recognising the importance of the rural economy, and build an ambitious policy platform designed to unleash its potential.
Gone are the days when the job of farmers and landowners was solely to feed the country – as important as that is.
Now rural businesses are heavily diversified. Modern landowners are as likely to be building houses, leasing business units, generating renewable energy, running farm shops and holiday homes as they are to be growing crops and rearing livestock.
They are also planting millions of trees and hedgerows to help the fight against climate change and improving biodiversity, through restoring natural habitats.
Therein lies much of the potential.
With the right Government policies, we can create thousands of skilled jobs and give opportunities to young people from all walks of life.
We can allow entrepreneurs and innovators to set up exciting new businesses without needing to relocate to the city.
We can help develop new technologies and techniques to improve the environment as well as provide high-quality and ethically-produced food to hungry consumers at home and abroad.
To do that, rural businesses need to be able to play a full part in the national economy – and in the modern era that means full connectivity.
During the Conservative leadership campaign, Mr Johnson pledged every home would be able to access full fibre broadband by 2025, eight years ahead of the current schedule.
He described it as ‘a disgrace that this country should suffer from a deep digital divide, so that many rural areas and towns are simply left behind’.
He is right, but achieving this is a colossal task, and as yet he has published no framework by which full broadband and 4g coverage can be delivered.
We all know, however, that Brexit is the Prime Minister’s most immediate priority.
It is no secret that farmers have mixed views about the UK’s departure from the European Union.
But much of the investment in British agriculture has been made possible in past years by the financial stimulus of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Outside the EU, continued long-term investment will be necessary to ensure the industry can deliver environmental management and high-quality, sustainable food for the country.
During the 2016 referendum campaign Boris Johnson said a future Government would be ‘out of its mind’ to reduce the agricultural budget as a result of Brexit.
However current funding commitments expire at the end of this Parliament, with no guarantee sufficient funds will be made available to help keep farms in business, let alone deliver the Government’s ambitious environmental agenda while also helping the industry transition away from the CAP.
This lack of certainty is stifling progress as businesses have no choice but to sit, wait and hope.
Yet for all the well-rehearsed Brexit concerns, which are real and valid, the exploration of new markets excite every modern business.
There are 7.5 billion consumers out there, and the last ten years or so has seen the most extraordinary reimagining of British food and drink.
We now sell cheese to the French, chocolate to the Belgians and even tea to China.
Increasingly we are selling pork, beef and a broad variety of other produce to growing markets in Asia, Africa and South America.
Those who fear that, post-Brexit, our high standards in food production may be bargained away across the negotiating table have justifiable concerns. But that is only half the story.
Our high standards, arguably the highest in the world, are the very reason why customers in far-off lands should want to buy our produce.
It is by far our biggest selling point, and the new Secretary of State for International Trade should be excited by the fact.
The Prime Minister himself says he wants to ‘turbo charge’ the promotion of UK food exports post-Brexit. They are fine words, but the campaign is over and the real work starts now.
The risks rural businesses face will only be mitigated, and the opportunities we see will only be exploited, if Mr Johnson makes good on his promises.